Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Documenting President Obama [satire]

Last week, The Onion published an article that uses a fictional National Archives project to comment on both the elasticity of truth in the digital era and popular fascination with the 44th President of the United States:
In what is being hailed as a breakthrough in the field of historical record-keeping, the National Archives announced Monday that it would immediately begin outfitting Barack Obama's chest, limbs, and face with an array of motion capture sensors for use in preserving a 3-D account of his time as president.

"The presidency of Mr. Obama is truly a landmark event, and I can think of no better way to honor it than with this $2.5 billion advanced digital-imaging project," acting archivist Adrienne Thomas told reporters. "Not only will our sensors provide unprecedented moment-to-moment documentation of a sitting U.S. president, but they will also give the American people the breathtaking realism and seamless layer animation they have come to expect."

. . . . "Our 78-person team is committed to capturing each and every nuance of the Obama administration," Vicon CEO Douglas Reinke said. "Years from now, historians will be able to access high-quality images of what the former president might have looked like while he was, say, meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on April 3, 2009, or tying his shoelaces on the afternoon of June 3, 2011."
The article goes on to state that the sensors will be incorporated into an elastic bodysuit and that President Obama:
will be required to wear the motion capture device at all times during his presidency, barring a few minutes each day to shower and change into a fresh bodysuit. In addition, the president has been instructed to refrain from performing any activities that might cause the sensors to malfunction, such as running, breathing heavily, or letting his core temperature rise above 99.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Secret Service will be required to ensure that the President remains in front of a large green-screen background at all times.

Wittingly or unwittingly, The Onion highlights the profoundly unarchival nature of this project, which doesn't involve caring for records that others create during the course of doing business or keeping only the most significant records; not even the President warrants this sort of exhaustive (and invasive) archival documentation. And why worry about authenticity when the infinite flexibility of reality in the digital age is so . . . entertaining?
Many scholars have also praised a feature of the motion capture technology that would allow future generations to digitally alter the president . . . by retroactively modifying clothing, facial features, skin tone, and even accessories.

"Imagine being able to see what it might have looked like had Obama been wearing a bow tie when he delivered his first State of the Union address," American historian Joseph Ellis said. "Or if he'd been sporting a luxurious mustache while sitting down with the prime minister of Japan. The possibilities for customization are endless."
I suspect that most people who read this piece had a quick laugh and moved on. However, an archivist could certainly use it a springboard for explaining to non-archivist friends and relatives just what it is we do and why we do it. And the "photos" of President Obama in his motion-capture bodysuit have to be seen to be believed . . . .

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